Lonely at the Conference Table

A young leader in Montana tells about how he advanced so quickly in state government. His keys to success? Time, luck, hard work, risk taking, and being well-dressed.
by | June 18, 2010

Heather Kerrigan

Heather Kerrigan is a GOVERNING contributor. She pens the monthly Public Workforce column and contributes to the print magazine.

For the past two months, this newsletter focused on a young leader and his manager in West Virginia, uncovering what attracts the younger generation to government and retains it. In continuing this series, I interviewed Ryan Evans, the finance manager in the State of Montana's Office of Budget and Program Planning. Evans has quickly moved from being an intern in California to his current position. His keys to success: time, luck, hard work, risk taking and being well-dressed.

Evans caught my attention in an e-mail he sent me in which he explained "As a twenty-something who has also ascended through the public-sector ranks very quickly to that of a statewide official, I can attest that sometimes it can get lonely around the conference table when you and the rest of the officials are separated in age by a generation or more." I took this opportunity to find out more in this edited transcript.

How did you first become interested in a career in government?

My mother was in a quasi-government field -- she worked in the nonprofit sector. My father was in the private sector. My educational background was in political science, basically because I was fascinated with government, politics and federal issues. At one point, that led me to graduate school in public administration. So I finished up with my MPA (Master of Public Administration) and I got a number of internships.

In 2005, I started my first internship in economic development and redevelopment. I was able to hone a lot of skills on negotiations and management, budget and bond issues and finance. I really liked it. I really like the magnitude of these issues.

Ultimately, being from Montana, I really wanted to get back home. In 2008, I moved back and had the opportunity to work in the governor's budget office. About six or seven months ago, I took over as finance manager and I've loved it ever since. I've had the ability to work at a number of levels. Every single day is different and there are new problems every single day, which fits my personality well.

As you worked your way from intern to finance manager, did you have any mentors?

I've had several mentors. My first supervisor in California was one of the most true-hearted individuals. He had worked in government for many, many years, and he's in it for the right reasons -- he likes making the world a better place. That was refreshing to see.

There are some private-sector experiences I had that can make the world better, but those always ended up being about the bottom line. In government, if you're in it for the intrinsic reasons, you're in it for the right reasons. In Montana, I've had many mentors. The budget director [David Ewer] has been a great mentor. He's been a brilliant guy.

How have you worked your way up in government so quickly?

I think the biggest things are: a little bit of luck, time, a lot of hard work and definitely some risk taking. With time and luck, it's about preparing yourself for when the appropriate circumstance comes along so you can take it. Also with the luck, many times there has to be some turnover. They can't create brand new positions for folks. I was able to work here for about a year and a half [before taking on my current position]. In the role I took, the previous person took a new position, and I had prepared myself to move into that position, which was attributable to the hard work. [Regarding] risk taking as well, sometimes it's floating that idea that may seem a little risky but was ultimately the best solution. Or being willing to put yourself out there and move out of your comfort zone. And ultimately, respect comes into play too.

You've mentioned that it can "get lonely around the conference table" for young people in government. How have you positioned yourself to be accepted and more comfortable?

One of the things is to be prepared and be well-dressed. If you come in looking like a 20-year-old, they don't take you seriously. [You have to] look professional, act professional, and ... know your stuff. And that comes with the willingness to learn and willingness to listen. I believe you should spend at least twice the amount of time to listening as you do speaking. And then, make your speaking time worthwhile... Don't stick your neck so far out there that you sound like you're being pushy. Tell them what you think they've said and then offer your two cents. [Make them see] you're willing to carry your weight in a project. I think respect takes a while, and so [does] the dedication and hard work that goes behind it.

Is there anything you think the private sector could provide that the public sector does not?

Right now, I'd say I'm very satisfied. [Government] provides a good work/family type balance. The benefits are competitive. The challenge is there and it's always challenging for me. Right now, there is not a big void.

Do you anticipate remaining in government for a majority of your career?

I think so. Right now, I'm very satisfied and very excited about the upcoming challenges. I think government, and state government in particular, is going to play a very critical role. There are challenges with health care and financial reform. There are some very good opportunities to continue to be challenged and to find a unique and workable solution.

What advice would you offer to managers working to recruit or retain young employees?

I would definitely say if you're looking to keep and retain, meaningful challenges and meaningful tasks go very, very, very far. When you feel like you're accomplishing something or participating -- it doesn't have to be at the executive or management level -- it's great.


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